…One major thing we’ve learned that you can’t plan for everything, and that mistakes turn into lessons. With our experience being moms, we have the fortune of being natural multi-taskers and the ability to figure things out on the fly. Fortunately or unfortunately, while most people are putting a perfect plan together and looking at every possible problem from every angle, we were diving in, full speed ahead and figuring things out — and it has worked out well for us in the end.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christina Samatas. Christina is one of the Co-Founders of Park & Oak Interior Design, based in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. From a very young age, Christina always had an eye for design. After a career in PR and marketing and then starting a family, fate brought Christina back to the design world where her and Renee DiSanto founded Park & Oak. Drawing on a mix of design styles and influences, the residential interior design firm’s unique creative depth and architectural and construction know-how, Park & Oak ensures a highly individualized, worry-free, enjoyable experience. The result is a home that feels quintessentially “yours.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
For as long as I can recall, my surroundings have always had a huge effect on my mood or comfort level — and they still do. Growing up in Texas, both of my parents worked. My mom had a big job in advertising and often brought me to work. I loved going to her office, and would often play in the boardroom and pretend that I was the one in charge. At home, I was constantly rearranging the furniture in my room and throughout the house. I even recall having a major reaction to my parent’s choice in paint colors for their dining room. When I visited my grandparents’ home in the summers, I would start organizing and rearranging their home, as well.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business?
I have always been interested in fine arts and even considered attending art school after high school, but at the time I didn’t have a real plan for what I was going to do after art school. And, my folks encouraged me to pursue a degree in something where “I could support myself.” So, I decided on a communications degree, but my love for design and the arts never waned.
I worked in the PR/marketing/special events field before starting a family, and then enrolled in design school after my second son was born. I was fortunate enough to meet a designer that gave me an unpaid internship that eventually led to a job before finishing. This job, for me, was instrumental in giving me the courage and confidence to pursue my dream career.
As fate would have it, the life as a professional and a wife and mother of three became too demanding for me, and I felt something had to give. I walked away from what I thought was my “dream job” to be home with my family. We had recently finished a big remodel on our home, and our builder asked if I might be interested in helping some of their clients with selections. This opportunity was perfect at the time, because it allowed more freedom in my schedule and afforded me the chance to really learn the ins and outs of residential construction. I felt like I was a sponge. Every opportunity up to this point was exactly what I wanted to be doing, and I was willing to do whatever I could to learn more about it.
Eventually, the clients I worked with during my stint with the builder turned into clients who wanted help furnishing their homes — and that is how Park & Oak began. Not long after getting a few interior design clients, I met Renee, the other co-founder of the firm. I describe her as a true artist; someone that views a room upside down and comes up with crazy ideas. But it is our “yin and yang” that makes the dynamic so special. She, with her more whimsical approach, mixed with my need to be functional and classic, creates a look that is timeless, layered, textured and collected.
Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?
Shortly after starting Park & Oak and posting what we could on Instagram to grow our following, we had the good fortune of having a well-known influencer, Ann Sage, write the most lovely article about us. At the time, we were in the throws of our first major saga with a disgruntled client and felt pretty low — even considered throwing in the towel — but her article and support was just the thing we needed at the time. She shared our work with her followers and used words like “international sensation” that made us feel like we had something special, something different. We felt more worthy of continuing on this path, even though it was feeling like we were in an uphill battle on so many fronts. I am forever grateful for her grace and kind words, because they really changed our perspective during a difficult time.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
This is so true! For our business, I believe our partnership is the secret sauce to our success. We are each other’s greatest champion, while also being the first to challenge the other. We might see opposite sides of a situation, but have the same core focus and passion. So, whenever one of us doubts our talent or ability, the other is there to pull them up. We look at something that is being done already and try to identify how we can do it differently and/or better. We are constantly reevaluating and tweaking things, and her strength is my weakness and vise versa. It has kept us strong throughout the ups and downs of owning a business.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
If you truly feel passionate about something, you should go after that dream. Throughout my life, I have created goals for myself, set it as an intention and then worked really hard to make it happen. Sure, the unknown can be scary, but just imagine how great it can be if you take a chance on something you love and it works out! And, if for some reason it doesn’t work out, well then you haven’t really lost anything.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
I actually don’t know if I agree with that statement at all! I think if something is truly a passion and you are able to do it for a living, then how can you dread it? However, pursing a passion and owning a business are two different things. You can pursue a passion and work for a company that affords you the opportunity to do what you love, or you can create a company that also affords you this same luxury. The main difference: when you own your own business, you have to wear so many hats and have your hands in more than just the thing you were pursuing as your “dream job”.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I love how we get to create a culture of women supporting women, allowing and acknowledging that if you desire it, you can be something other than a mother or a wife. We started Park & Oak because we wanted to be creative and to work, but we also wanted to volunteer in the our children’s classrooms or be home for dinners with the family. I hate when people say, “You can’t have it all.” It only makes me want to prove that person wrong! It is all about perspective. I choose to work, and also to be a mother, a wife and a friend. Yes, you may have to get up at 5:00 am to get my day started or continue work after the kids are down for bed, but that is the choice you are making to live the life you want. You will have a lot gut punches and setbacks along the way, so it is important to stay positive, believe in yourself more than anything, trust your gut and never give up. Learn from your mistakes quickly and don’t fear failure. It only makes you stronger.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Renee and I have to wear many hats. We are not only working on design, but we also have to be involved with the operations side of things, new business development, customer service, etc. There are so many components to running a small business that you aren’t just doing what you set out to do — there is so much more to be done.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
I believe if I were in this business alone, without a partner, I definitely may have quit. There are such extreme highs and extreme lows. Fortunately for us, when one of us is having any doubts or struggles, one person pulls the other back in. I feel strongly that we are better because we have each other to lean on when it gets challenging, and celebrate with when things are going well.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of our first projects was decorating a model unit for a large condo building. Everything and anything that could go wrong, did go wrong! The sofa we had planned to use couldn’t make the turn to get in the front door and had to be sent back, and that was only the beginning. Given it was truly one of our first projects, we didn’t have any of the resources we have in place today. We rented a box truck and loaded it up with accessories and such, and I was the driver. It was a long day, and when we were finally packed up and able to go home, I jumped in the truck and started to drive off. Renee was trailing behind me, waiving and honking her car horn, and I’m thinking that she is celebrating the fact that we are finally done and the space looks great. As it turns out, that wasn’t the case! I had left the back door open and things were starting to fall out the back. Thankfully, I stopped before too much chaos and damage had happened, and we still cry laughing about it to this day.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
Tory Burch — a mom and a businesswoman — created a company out of nothing, and now gives back by being strong supporter of female-owned business through her foundation. She exudes classic style, but makes it her own and stays ahead of the pack because she is constantly pushing the traditional limits of “classic” to have her own aesthetic, recognizing gaps in the marketplace and creating a space for her own vision.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
When Renee and I were first putting together our intentions and business plan for our company, giving back was a big part of our future once things were off the ground. Now that we are entering year 4 in this fall, it is a big initiative for us. We strongly believe in supporting women in a way that helps them to feel good about where they live and/or encourages them to chase that dream, offering internships to women pursing design as a second career and needing someone to give them a chance.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
I sometimes think we are better off because we didn’t have anyone telling us things before we started, because we may never have pursued this dream.
But, one major thing we’ve learned that you can’t plan for everything, and that mistakes turn into lessons. With our experience being moms, we have the fortune of being natural multi-taskers and the ability to figure things out on the fly. Fortunately or unfortunately, while most people are putting a perfect plan together and looking at every possible problem from every angle, we were diving in, full speed ahead and figuring things out — and it has worked out well for us in the end.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love? You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Renee and I are the proud and oftentimes exhausted mothers of six kids between us. We can easily look back on our journey and see the impact that our friendship and support of one another has had on our company’s success. Our ability to be flexible and forgiving with each other, the encouragement of ability and validation of one another’s strengths and contributions — that has kept us going.
We had a steep learning curve, but we put one foot in front of the other and had each other’s backs from day one — my success is her success. Our hope would be that women better support each other in ways that not only helps them to rise up, but with the mentality that we can all rise up together. We love supporting not only each other and the women in our studio, but believe we are all better when we can support women in our industry as well.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” — Steve Jobs
For me, this means that for all things in life, you should always follow your heart, believing in yourself and your dreams. You will never truly be happy in work or life if you aren’t first authentic to yourself. Find that thing that lights you up inside and never let it go. Grow it. Build it. Never give up. Be the best version of you.
There are quite a few people we often reference and look to for inspiration in their path, their drive or style.
We love Ralph Lauren for his take on the classics and making them relevant 20 years ago, today or 20 years from now. He has mastered the art of being classic with just enough edge that makes him a leader in design and fashion.
Tory Burch is another one that is truly inspirational for us. She has built an empire on creating beautiful things she loves. She was able to recognize and fill a void in the marketplace for things that were missing, and that ultimately made her a household name. She remains classic but always putting her spin on things. We love how she supports and nurtures the growth of female entrepreneurs through her leadership program and hope to be able to offer the same sort of support and inspiration for women in the future.
And of course, there’s Oprah. She embodies what’s good and true about many women we know and have met along the way. In that, we all have a story, many of us hardships and setbacks aplenty, but we persevere. As women, we are so many things to so many people. Oprah is a reminder to all women including ourselves, the path may not always be easy and usually isn’t, but you can overcome and succeed.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.